July 24, 1972 – Story Breaks About Syphilis Experiments on Poor Blacks

On this day in history, The Washington, D.C. newspaper Washington Star revealed that for forty years the United States Public Health Service (PHS) had been conducting a study on low income African-American males from rural Alabama to measure the effects of untreated syphilis.

The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in Negro Male” began between 1931 and 1934 and initially involved 600 black men – 399 with syphilis, and 201 who did not have the disease. The project, which was conducted in Macon County, Alabama around the county seat of Tuskegee, did not have patients’ informed consent. Researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance. Although originally projected to last 6 months, the study actually went on for 40 years.

A doctor draws blood from one of the Tuskegee test subjects.

A doctor draws blood from one of the Tuskegee test subjects.

Study participants with syphilis were never given the proper treatment needed to cure their illness, even when penicillin became recognized in 1947 as the drug of choice for syphilis. The complications of untreated syphilis were well-known to medical science the year the study began. Moreover, PHS nurses told local public health workers that participants in the study were not to be treated; patients were similarly warned they would lose their “benefits” if they took treatments elsewhere.

Upon the breaking of this news story, the public outcry from the story led the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs to appoint an Ad Hoc Advisory Panel to review the study. The advisory panel concluded that the Tuskegee Study was “ethically unjustified”–the knowledge gained was sparse when compared with the risks the study posed for its subjects. In October 1972, the panel advised stopping the study at once. A month later, the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs announced the end of the Tuskegee Study.

In the summer of 1973, a class-action lawsuit was filed by the NAACP on behalf of the study participants and their families and a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached in 1974. As part of the settlement, the U.S. government promised to give lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all living participants. In 1975, wives, widows and offspring were added to the program, and in 1995, the program was expanded to include health as well as medical benefits. The U.S. Government did not issue a formal apology until 1997. You can read the remarks by President Clinton here.

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